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PETER BLEGVAD

Incense and Insensibility
Hearsay #12 / 1996 / Interview with Pete

blegvad
"I never had any doubt what I wanted to be until I tried to be it."
 

Peter Blegvad has been serving up charming and vicarious albums for more than twenty years while simul­taneously spicing the goulash of many a Hearsay-friendly artist (Syd Straw, Victoria Williams, Michael Penn and The Golden Palominos among them). Pete Pawsey was thrilled with the invitation to the surprisingly low-ceilinged Blegvad Towers to discuss his new confec­tion, Just Woke Up, back in Novem­ber 1995. The Kitchen Table Summit was conducted amid the festive, jin­gling felines who star in his cartoon Leviathan, one of whom puts in a guest appearance mid-flow...

HEARSAY: Your itinerant lifestyle has taken you from Hoboken to Hertford­shire to Hamburg to West London. Do you think you've finally found your natural habitat?
PETER BLEGVAD
: I've been thinking a bit more than usual about habitation because about three weeks ago I cleared out my New York loft of twenty years. I was evicted by my landlords the Dutch Reform Church, who own most of Lower Manhattan. I was expecting to feel deracinated and exiled here in wintry London but in fact it's been quite the opposite: I feel like I've had a useless limb amputated. I feel relieved and very much at home in Shepherd's Bush. Maybe I've found my habitat.

You seem to derive great amusement from poetry. Whose work most affected your own writing?
I often think my life was saved or perhaps my character was radically changed by adolescent confrontation with W B Yeats. My family moved from America to England in the sixties and I went to a very alternative school run along AS Neill / Summerhill lines, not quite as radical but definitely a free-thinking Quaker school. We were allowed to grow our hair long and everybody smoked pot and slept with everybody — we weren't supposed to of course, but we did! I had a wonderful English teacher who was absolutely passionate about Yeats and I wanted him to admire me so I became passionate about Yeats, too. In my experience it's the best formula for education - so I became Yeats for a while! Up until then I'd been a Beat aficionado reading almost exclusively Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso and Kerouac and had hair down to my nipples: the next term I showed up in a suit and tie with short hair speaking with an Irish accent. Yeats's interest in mysticism, symbolism and the toughness and economy of his later poems, when he was influenced by Ezra Pound, that was an enormous influence. The entire spectrum of his interests—but maybe less the political thing—really fascinated me.

Some of that William Blake-style symbolism blended with my other main influence. namely French Surrealist poets and their Pataphysical predecessors, notably Alfred Jarry. Pataphysics and the Golden Dawn mixed together! I make fun of it but the satire and derision stops when the mystical hocus pocus bleeds into the area of poetic imagination. At that point magic is real: I've felt its force, I know it works, and it's something that can make the difference between a meaningful life and the abyss.

I was just listening to Noel Coward's Lorelei which contains the line 'pity the language left alone'...
What a beautiful line! But that's too deep for me, Pete. I don't know what to say. Sometimes it's the leaving alone that's important. It's like a drawing—sometimes it's your duty to a work to leave it alone or to carry it to another stage.

What did you say to your careers tutor in the fireside chats?
There was nothing like that at my school! I never had any doubt what I wanted to be until I tried to be it. I wouldn't have listened if anyone had offered advice. But I don't think anyone would have advised me against it—I think they would have just been relieved that I had any idea what I wanted to do. As a parent or advisor, there's relief when there seems to be a hint of a calling in some young person. As a father, this is what frightens me most, fantasising about my kids. I see it in other people's kids—they have no idea what they want to do, and some of them are in their thirties! I myself, until four years ago when I got this gig cartooning for the Independent on Sunday, had no idea what I wanted to do. I do what I do but I don't make a living out of it. What is one supposed to do with one's life? Whenever someone says to me 'what are we gonna do next?', I instantly experience a sense of vertigo and hysteria. ‘I don't know! I don't know! There is no “supposed to”; we just have to do something. Or do nothing! All I know is that eventually we're gonna die.'

It seems an unique musical path you've taken.
Aren't they all unique though? It's an accident with a little opportunism thrown in. I was always a pop writer and aficionado. In all my dabblings with avant-garde people, I think they liked a hint of the pop thing. I remember [Chris] Cutler's gratified look when we were doing In Praise of Learning and I came in with a melodic pop chord. Because of the dialectic contrast with the row, it was appreciated. That's what I really know what to do and there's a lot more to be got out of it which I've only begun scraping. I can't do dangerous melody like Andy Partridge bemuse I can't hit the notes, I have to stay in a tiny restricted area. but I'm always trying to break out.

Michael Penn thanks you for 'Masonic Handshakes' on the sleeve of March (1989). Why is this?
I think he shares my interest and amusement in things phantasmagorical, and around the time that I appeared—very briefly—on his first album we'd been making The Lodge record. There'd been some talk of Masonic regalia, I think he collects Masonic props: strange wands and symbolic shoes. Upon leaving as we shook hands, I performed a strange gesture as our hands met and made him laugh.

He's part of a great family tradition, isn't he?
What. a Masonic family?!

Er, no, I meant a creative tradition.
Oh yes! That's for sure. What a family.

Who would play you in the TV movie of The Henry Cow Story?
T-Bone Burnett. He looks just like me and he's got Hollywood connections. Nicolas Cage could do it - he'd have to put on a little weight in his jowls.

You've worked with various luminaries. Do you harbour ambitions to collaborate with anyone else?
I'm sure I'd enjoy working with any of the musicians I admire but it's more exciting to feel that I've already found the people I want to work with. BJ Cole fits right in there. Chris Cutler is made for my stuff with his idiosyncratic, to put it mildly, approach to pop drumming. It's like adding percussion composition to a bluesy folk song. One of my favourite drummers of all time is Dave Mattacks, who is the genius of the empty space, how that can have a weight and a rhythmic swing to it just to leave the beat out. You feel it as if it's been thumping through your woofer. But Chris is a dazzling, encyclopaedic conversationalist. The studio time runs over bemuse it's so interesting hearing what he's talking about. He's played with John Greaves since they were children so they make a great rhythm section, unusual, quirky and very musical. I entertain the dream of doing a record where Fred Frith is in the producer's chair; Peter Holsapple too.

Do you think you've arrived at a practical part-time rate of making albums?
Oh, you mean I don't work hard enough? I think I am guilty of a dilettante relationship to songwriting and performing, no question about it. It's partly the exigencies of real life: I can't make a living from music and I've got this wonderful job as a cartoonist that takes up a lot of time. I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to gallivant around the world playing small gigs, sleeping on floors. At 45 it has less allure than it did when I was doing the same thing at 21. If there were a larger fanbase and I played bigger gigs for more money it'd make a difference but it's a labour of love, one can only afford such luxuries occasionally.

There's always a danger that the unsuccessful will make a fetish out of it and say, 'well, that's because we're so good.' I'm definitely guilty of that because I think the successful stuff invariably sucks—it's terrible! But it's a kind of snobbery; it's the opposite of Tony Parsons who makes half a million a year writing bullshit and saying the underground is for the unsuccessful, anything that's out of the usual is unsuccessful. We're both snobs, me and Tony. But I never saw any reason musicians—artists, writers, whatever—should expect to make a living from what they do. You're either driven to do it or—what? You're gonna complain that you're doing what you love to do? What's ghastly is the people who are rewarded are rewarded in such an over-the-top fashion... Phil Collins should be required by law to distribute 40 per cent of his income to unemployed musicians. He makes too much money for garbage, and people doing good work don't make anything. I'm not talking about myself here - I am rewarded exactly according to the quality of what I do. I make a good two thousand pounds a year from music and that's just about right—after 20 years in the business!

But you were talking about recording and I have no excuse. I don't write much these days. I've got notebooks full of promising embryos that maddeningly resist coherence. I used to be able to say 'Okay, I won't leave this room until I've finished this song.' I've tried that but after a couple of days hunger and thirst drive me out of there, the song still unfinished.

Auden plundered unrelated pentameter for unex­pected collisions. What do you use for an inspirational laxative?
I have recourse to all the writers' tricks I've heard about and they do often work. If you have the first verse of something it's such a formal problem to see what follows on from that, it should be a contrast rather than a linear chapter two, and then the third has to somehow bring the two together. The only incentive sufficiently terrifying to cut through the inertia is a deadline. When the record company, or in this case Chris Cutler, books the studio and changes his schedule, you need something there to record otherwise the writing process goes on for ever. 

Do you record more than you release?
It wouldn't be a very impressive Basement Tapes collection if all my unreleased stuff was assembled, but there am some things kicking around. There was a long period of quite elaborate demos, early incarnations of songs that wound up on King Strut. There's a pretty interesting version of In The Meantime done on twelve string with a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w b-e-a-t. Of course it's a very long song, you fall asleep before the end, but it has a good atmosphere.

Leonard Cohen says he doesn't mind poor cover versions of his songs since he has real children to worry about. Any thoughts?
My kids are still at the age where they're not so much out in the world. I certainly don't worry about a song being mutilated by other people; in fact any attention they get from other musicians is very flattering, even if I don't think the results are great musically. It's very interesting to hear somebody else interpreting one of your fantasies, obviously.

'You and me, me and you, lots and lots for us to do, lots and lots for us to see, me and you, you and me.' This chorus, almost interchangeable with yours from the song You & Me, comes from 1970s children's television. Do you look for a childlike quality?
I wish I'd known about that, we'd have got clearance and bunged it on the album! Probably the truth is I don't have to look for it, being profoundly immature. It's almost a touchstone of quality I respond to in visual arts and literature. In songs it's difficult to take on board all this verbal information unless it's made very clear with a degree of repetition. That's why I like rhyme and these artificial conventions that also help the listener. It's frustrating listening to other musicians, particularly in a live context because I can't understand most of what they're singing. Without that extra dimension to it a lot of pop music isn't very engaging. My own work too is essentially American roots chord changes, if anything makes it unusual it's the movement of thought that’s going on in the language. I met Aimee Mann for the first time the other day, with Michael Penn, and I know she's a wonderful songwriter but when I saw her on the Jools Holland show, I couldn't understand a word she was singing! With most bands, if there's a drummer, just forget it!

What pop music does engage your sentiments?
Nick Lowe's Pinker And Prouder Than Previous is a perfect album, Terry Allen, Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart some Tom Waits and Lou Reed, the Byrds, the Beatles, Ry Cooder, David Lindley... [To his miscreant kitten: ] What are you doing with that hedgehog? Come back here with that hedgehog!

My father's jazz collection has an enormous influence on me. Increasingly I find that good old shuffle beat and the predictable bluesy chord-changes coming to the fore. We were just having a conversation, he and I: 'Why is Miles Davis cited as a genius when it's quite clear he has trouble reaching the high notes? It's full of technical mistakes!' Well, pop, you gotta think of it a bit like Picasso: he would draw in a way that looked deliberately untutored or childlike, even though he could draw like Ingres if he chose to. 'You mean Miles Davis could actually play like Louis Armstrong if he wanted to ?' The higher echelons of jazz were a mystery to me until John Zorn invited me to take part in something and then it was, 'hey, anyone can do this stuff! You just gotta be nimble.'

Your ongoing dialogue with God continues on new songs like That'll Be Him Now. Is it satisfactory?
Who is this protagonist here? In those moments I'm sufficiently out of it to attempt to get through, it tends to be a one-sided conversation. She doesn't return my calls. Meanings or associations seem to accrue to that song: the Second Coming, the Avon lady, the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, the dead son coming back in the Monkey's Paw and a poem by Clayton Eshelman who edits Sulphur magazine. He describes those mysterious dots on the walls of stone age caves in the South of France as doorbells for summoning Hades. It's definitely supposed to have a sinister feel to it. The idea of all these people gathered expectantly for generations waiting for this appearance, is almost like a death wish. It's quite a picture. I wrote many more verses to that song which I just couldn't squeeze in. It's sometimes a trap if you work too hard on the lyrics, if you come up with something which adds significantly to the story or to the literary enjoyment, if you don't also come up with something musically you can overload the song. I'm guilty of that! Too many verses.

Much of your action seems to take place amid Biblical deluge. Do you crave the womb?
For me, water's always been a symbol of the Jungian unconscious: not a trust but a certainty that most of what's going on is happening under the surface, and we don't control it. Liquids loom large in my legend. Water, alcohol, India ink courses through my veins as the son of an illustrator, and milk of course is the corner liquid of my architecture, my puddle. There is a box file that's been accumulating scraps about milk since about 1971. I should write a novel, a magnum opus where the protagonist works his way from quote to quote, all five hundred of them, perhaps a superhuman task. It's been immensely valuable having a genuine obsession, and it was like a vision vouchsafed to me when as a 20-year-old it was revealed to me that milk was numinous. I can't explain how it happened. I just had this sense that there was a message in the glass of milk for me to decipher. It's a bit like the American poet Charles Olson. He said to a student, 'if you choose any topic,'—he gave the example of barbed wire—'and learn everything there is to know about that topic, eventually you'll know everything there is to know.' Obviously, if you research barbed wire long enough, you'll get into history, economics, property, philosophy. And metallurgy and farming! It's been very much the case with milk..

Anything else, Pete? No questions about sports, huh? Whassamatter, you assume I don't like sports?.... You're right! Do you like sports?

Only cricket. Do you understand cricket?
Not really. I don't have the requisite mental muscle to understand sports. I was wondering about this the other day - why don't I like sports? Maybe because it doesn't leave an artefact behind. There's this incredible strenuous effort being expended but it doesn't endure. But I'm very moved that there's something where human beings—of which I generally have a low opinion—will get together and obey the rules. 'Cause sport only works with agreed-upon strictures. In a way it's like the corollary, the other face, of war. I pay too much attention to war which really puts paid to any degree of respect for the human race. So it might be good therapy to go to a few cricket matches. It's not that far from baseball.

Have you compiled yourself a suitable epitaph from rhyming couplets ?

No...

'He wrote themes with scant success

He once spelt themes with an extra 's'

Because it made his colleagues laugh

'The mess' became his epitaph.'

I sometimes think of things to say to people who are themselves about to die, and I guess those deathbed sermons could apply to me. In the case of pessimists like myself I would probably say: You always expected the worst, and nine times out of ten the worst didn't happen. So here you are afraid to die and there's probably just as good a chance that it won't be as bad as you think.

 More: Retrospective: Peter Blegvad on Peter Blegvad
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